Sheryl Sandberg, Tisha B’Av & How to Transform Loss into Resilience
Keeping the memory of a loved one alive.
When Sheryl Sandberg’s husband died suddenly on vacation two years ago, she did not know how to break the news to her then 7-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son. It was the worst experience of her life, and no matter what she said to them, she could not quell her own anxiety that losing their father at such a young age would ruin their lives. How, she wondered, would any of them ever feel happiness again?
So she sat down with her kids to make up a set of “family rules” to cope with the overwhelming grief that they were all feeling. “We wrote together that it’s O.K. to be sad and to take a break from any activity to cry. It’s O.K. to be happy and laugh. It’s O.K. to be angry and jealous of friends and cousins who still have fathers. It’s O.K. to say to anyone that we do not want to talk about it now. And it’s always O.K. to ask for help. The poster that we made that day – with the rules written by my kids in colored markers – still hangs in our hall so we can look at it every day. It reminds us that our feelings matter and that we are not alone. (“Sheryl Sandberg: How to Build Resilient Kids, Even After a Loss, NY Times, April 24, 2017)
But even after writing down their family rules, Sheryl began to worry that since her kids were so young when they lost their father that their memories of him would soon fade and this broke her heart all over again. To keep her husband Dave’s memory alive, she asked dozens of his closest family members, friends and colleagues to share their stories about him on video, and she also taped her children speaking about their own memories of their father. Last Thanksgiving, Sheryl’s daughter was upset because she said, “I’m forgetting Daddy because I haven’t seen him for so long."
So Sheryl put on the video of her daughter sharing memories of her Dad and this brought her tremendous comfort. It turns out that talking openly about memories, both good ones and painful ones, helps kids understand their past and face future challenges. It is especially empowering to share the stories of how the family stuck together through good times and hard times; it helps children feel connected to something bigger than themselves.
When our children grow up with a strong understanding of their family history – where their grandparents grew up, what their parent’s childhoods were like – they develop stronger coping skills and a better sense of mattering and belonging. And while expressing painful memories can be uncomfortable in the moment, Jamie Pennebaker of the University of Texas found that it improves both our physical and emotional health over time.
Sandberg said, “My hope is to hold onto Dave as he really was: loving, generous, brilliant, funny and also pretty clumsy. He would spill things constantly yet was always somehow shocked when he did. Now when emotions are running high in our house, but my son stays calm, I tell him, ‘You are just like your daddy.’ When my daughter stands up for a classmate who is getting picked on, I say, ‘Just like your daddy.’ And when either of them knocks a glass over, I say it, too.”
We have the ability to turn loss into resilience, grief into faith.
On Tisha B’Av we are like children who wake up one day with tears in our eyes and say, “I’m forgetting what it looked like. I don’t remember anything. I don’t know what it was like to have the Temple, to be in the Jerusalem that was filled with the presence of the Shechinah. It’s been too long; I don’t even know where I come from.”
We don’t remember enough to even know what we lost.
We don’t remember enough to even know what we lost. So we need to hear the stories, to read the words of Lamentations, to connect to something bigger than ourselves, to remember how our nation rose from the darkness to love, to pray, to pass on the yearning and the legacy of those who came before us and the history that we all share.
So we sit on the floor and we read the same words our grandparents and great grandparents and their parents once read on Tisha B’Av until we remember where we come from. And then we rise up and go on. Just like the loved ones that we have lost who remain in our hearts and in our unfolding lives because of the light they brought into our days.
May the Holy Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days, and until then, may we hold onto the memory of the gift of its light. Because with this light we can learn to transform our loss into resilience.